How Kyrgyzstan has made me a rude American

10 things I picked up in country that my American mother would be ashamed of.

  1. I yell “Дервучка” (girl) or “Чон куз” (big girl is appropriate in Kyrgyz) when I need service while dining out at a café. It’s the norm here to address young women in this way in the same way we would say “miss” in America, but I still cringe a little bit at the literal translation since it seems so rude to foreigners.
  2. My personal hygiene has gone down the drain. I bathe (maybe) once a week and when I do it is from a bucket that contains as many rusty flakes of degrading bucket as it does hot water. I frequently use febreeze and wet wipes as a hygiene substitute.
  3. I slurp and make obnoxious noises when I eat, especially noodle “soups” (mostly sheep fat broth and rice noodles). It’s a sign here that the food is good and it is sometimes just impossible to avoid.
  4. I cut in lines. Here it is cut or be cut, the formation of a line is rarely is ever seen. Instead people rush the counter and if you’re not pushy enough it will take forty minutes to buy that bottle of yogurt or pack of noodles.
  5. I discuss my bowel movements on the regular. Whether its with PC doctors (because there is actually a medical problem) or because I’m just so excited I had enough fiber today! Bodily functions come up in conversations between PCVs about as much as they do between a group of 7th grade boys.
  6. I “vacuum” my room during the quietest parts of the day. Here it’s important to make your host family very aware of when you are cleaning your room, so they know you actually clean your room.
  7. I steal people’s babies. Well, kind of, not really. But it’s incredibly common, if I actually have a seat on a mashrutka, for me to end up holding the baby (or grocery bag, or suitcase) of the woman sitting next to me while she rustles through the packet (plastic bag) she uses as a purse for some fried bread to shove in the baby’s mouth (optimally to keep it from crying).
  8. I feel incredibly rude when I speak. Not only do you have to speak pretty forcefully here to get what you need in general, for example asking “may I please have that tomato there” at the bazaar is a big tip off that you’re a tourist, even if you’re speaking in local language. Common protocol is “What are those? Tomatoes? How much? No, that’s too much, give me the tomatoes. I will pay this much.” Additionally talking to jigeets (young men) in an overly friendly way (don’t forget to drop that smile or they will either think you are crazy or want to marry them) can lead to problems due to the cultural differences of what we perceive as “friendly” but what is perceived here as “flirtatious.
  9. I answer my phone and inappropriate times. Without voicemail here the common practice is to call and call and call over again until the person answers. So answering the phone the first time it rings and walking out (or my personal favorite ducking your head under the table and having a full on conversation, because if nobody can see you, you’re definitely not a disturbance) in the middle of a meeting actually ends up saving whatever meeting I’m in from multiple interruptions.
  10. I shove my way through a crowd and have trampled ejes. I ride the same mashrutka home every day and around 4:00pm these mini busses begin to fill to the brim. I am often so crammed between people I have to shout to the driver through 20 people to stop on my street and then push and shove people out of the way in order to peel myself out of the door before the thing speeds away.

What I do in Kyrgyzstan

It’s been a while since I’ve posted last. Not to say I haven’t reflected or written or thought about experiences to share, but more that there have been so many changes in the last months of 2014 and the first of 2015 that I haven’t been sure how to tackle them all in writing. In that past 6 months I have moved towns, host families and organizations. Some of these changes have been long, some have been difficult, and some have brought about a positive light in my experience here that I never would have expected. So here is a little bit about:

What I do in Kyrgyzstan

It’s a question I’ve been trying to answer to the past (almost year) and piecing together an idea of my role in my organization, my home and host family and as an aid worker in a foreign country has been a long process. So let me tell you a little about it.

I now live in Karakol City, a large town located on the far eastern shore of Lake Issyk Kul.

Map-Karakol

This city offers the very best of Kyrgyzstan, beautiful mountains, a great ski resort, the second largest salt-water alpine lake in the world, and a bazaar that has (some) vegetables even in winter (sometimes). Despite the fact that I still have a hole in the ground for a toilet and light a coal burning petchka for heat, I’m incredibly spoiled.

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Karakol Valley in the summer

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Karakol Ski basin in the winter

My new organization is called “Ravenstvo” which means equality in Russian. We have an office in the bottom of an apartment building where the director, office manager, and program coordinator work. It is nice to have an office but I spend most of my days at our children’s center. This center “Ornok Center for the Early Intervention of Children with Disabilities” is partially funded by Ravenstvo and operates out of the bottom floor of School No. 14 in Karakol. The center was given six rooms in the back of the school and after months of remodeling, officially opened in November. We have about 20 students, of whom about 12 come in regularly. These children have a range of different disabilities from physical, cerebral palsy and spina bifida, to cognitive and learning disabilities, many non-verbal students, some with autism. The center is completely staffed by the caring mothers of children who attend. They are all incredibly hungry for new information about how to help their children and work very hard to provide a positive and active learning environment but the center also provides a space for them to act as support for one another and have time to socialize with other adults.

Over time we have developed a schedule of activities that cater to each student including music and art therapy, class time and individual work time, a sensory room and a space for physical therapy and massages.

When I tell locals I am a volunteer here in Kyrgyzstan the overwhelming assumption is I am an English teacher. I like being able to tell them about my work with children at the center but was surprised when I started noticing a trend in the responses. “Oh you must hate that, it must be so sad and difficult” many people say, perhaps in an attempt to empathize with me. I am proud to be able to respond (in limited broken Russian of course) that in fact I love it. I never feel sad about my work and it is, in fact, never depressing. Being greeted with big smiles and hugs every day and being able to watch as the students learn a little bit more, both academically and socially, every day is my favorite part of my service.

Crazed Cattle, Deranged Donkeys, Dead Dogs and other animal encounters in Kyrgystan

Kyrgyzstan is full of animals of all kinds; domestic, wild and something in between.  I have written before about how animals are often treated and seen very differently than we are used to in the United States.  As my time here grows, I begin to find myself needing to adapt myself and my reactions to animals, especially the things that affect me and elicit a very emotional response, just in order to keep myself sane as well as to not look like the blathering tourist on the local mashrutka who gets excited and takes pictures every time our route is blocked and our journey put on pause by a herd of sheep or cattle or horses crossing the road.  I am reminded of this every time I get a text from a fellow PCV describing the bloody scene of an accident where a horse was hit by a car, or when I approach my host family’s dog with a treat and it fearfully squeals and yaps and attempts to bite me as it cowers instead of gleefully approaching me, expecting a belly rub. I see donkeys lying on the side of the road with their feet tied together (presumably so they wont run away) making the loudest most horrid noises, and cows wandering the streets of my village, almost always unaccompanied.  Explaining these differences to myself is difficult, but not being able to express to locals how some of these encounters are new for me and why they affect me is even more of a challenge.

Recently, I traveled to Kyrgyzstan’s capital city, Bishkek, to visit with some friends and to have a meeting with an organisation that will work collaboratively with mine throughout my service.  After a 5 hour mashrutka ride, I arrived at the autovoxal in Bishkek and began mapping out my route to the friend’s apartment where I was to spend the weekend.  It was late, about 8:00 pm, and I realised that to catch a mashrutka that would take me closest to where I needed to go I would have to walk a few blocks. So, huge backpack in tow, I hiked up to a large intersection and parked on a bus stop bench, waiting for the 265.  I was looking at my phone when I suddenly heard an alarming cracking noise followed by a loud yelp.  I looked up and didn’t see anything at first but then heard it again. Thud. Crack. Squeal.  My eyes adjusted and I saw in the middle of the road that a dog had been hit by passing cars.  The traffic director had stopped the flow of traffic down the road temporarily allowing the cross street to pass but was clearly paying no attention to the situation at hand.  I looked around at the other people occupying the bus stop and most of them were covering their mouths, whispering and pointing.  A few women had tears in their eyes.  They all let out a gasp as the dog was hit by yet another car.  It tried to limp off the road but couldn’t stand.  As stood in shock on the side of the road, tears welling in my eyes another car drove past and another squeal pierced my ears.  An older gentleman on the side of the road yelled at the traffic director, “look what is happening!” he screamed.  Realising that no one was going to help the dog, which had now given up on trying to walk off the road and was lying in the street panting, I (dangerously and without thinking not just because of traffic dangers but also because dogs are notoriously dirty and diseased here) dropped my pack and ran into the street, scooped up the dog and brought it to the side of the road.  A group of younger men crowded around and began muttering in Kyrgyz and Russian.  I couldn’t stay to watch so I boarded the next mashrutka that passed and bit my lip hard to avoid bursting into tears and being seen as the deranged American tourist, crying for no reason.  Of course I soon realised that this mashrutka that I had jumped onto so suddenly to remove myself from that street corner was not following a route in the direction I needed to go.  It took another hour (and a quick rescue by a friend) to find my way back to the apartment I would be staying in.

I’ve been told that this experience, while shocking to me, is nothing in comparison to the sights volunteers often encounter when the local militsia “cleans up the streets” (goes around killing stray dogs) once a year.  Stories like this about dogs, cats, horses, sheep, donkeys, mice, etc. often plague a volunteer’s experience with the uncomfortable reality that in order to survive in a new environment, sometimes you have to compartmentalise these emotions. Change the way you see, or don’t see certain aspects of life, and put every effort into changing the ways these experiences affect you.

On a lighter note, I also wanted to share a story about a night during Phase 3 of my PST. I was back living with my first host family in Krasnaya Rechka and wrote about it at the time but never posted. It details another difference in the ways in which animals can be perceived in other cultures as well as how language skills can sometimes get in the way of complete understanding. Here it is now.

Last night my Snaha knocked on my door, “Anna, Anna, Anna… Moshna?” (may I?)  She quickly muttered something in Russian that I did not understand and finally mimed out that she needed my headlamp. She motioned towards the backyard and said something about our dog, Tobig. Knowing that I love Tobig, she looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to put on my slippers and come with her. I obliged, mostly out of curiosity for what she was so panicked about at 11:30 at night. I ran after her down the hallway into our garden. She motioned to the yard and repeated the word I had not understood before. Upon seeing the dumbfounded and confused look on my face, she mimed something that reminded me of being stung by a bee. I thought maybe Tobig had been stung. I could not see Tobig but heard him growling from the dark area in the corner of our pepper patch. We shined the light down the rows of peppers to find him. I asked if it was a bumblebee and if the dog had been hurt. (O.K. fine, I really asked if he was “sad” and mimed out being stung by a bee, my language skills aren’t that impressive yet). She looked at me with the same confused expression I had given her moments ago, and mimed out what she meant again, repeating the word. “Дикобраз! Дикобраз!” (Deekobraz)

This round of charades lead me to believe he had found a scorpion in our backyard. I repeated the word and tried to mime out scorpion (tail, pincers, repetitively asking if it was black or brown). She half listened to my attempt to capture a terrifying and poisonous creature and pointed to the ground where Tobig had attempted to dig something up, uprooting two or three of our pepper plants in the process. We continued towards the growling and as we walked down the dark rows of short shrubs I thought about what I would do if I were stung by a scorpion, an insect (maybe?) I know absolutely nothing about in the backyard of my host family’s house just days before swearing in as a PCV.

“Call the PC medical staff at 11:00 pm? Would I need to elevate my foot? Suck out the poison? How do I say ‘the damn thing stung me!’ in Russian? Would I die? I’m pretty sure we didn’t cover this in our first aid session!”

As we approached Tobig’s war zone with the mystery creature my Snaha gasped and pointed. She shined the light between a row of pepper leaves and strawberry plants and as she repeated the same word she had been saying over and over for the last five minutes, the light shone on… a hedgehog. Small, cute, not terrifying or “spoogalsya” (scary). I laughed and knelt next to it to which her response was to gasp even louder and scream at me; “Neilzya Anna! Ne Trogai!” (Don’t touch!) We returned to our mime game as she mimicked something that made her appear as if she was being shot with an arrow. I laughed again and in broken Russian and charade mimes, tried to explain that this was a hedgehog, not a porcupine. It is small and its quills wont shoot out at you if you pick it up, in fact, I explained, I had one as a pet in college! But not wanting to scare her more than I already had by approaching the “wild” animal in our garden, I allowed Tobig to take the night’s watch of the terrified little creature and returned to my room.

World Nomad Games

I knew last week would be an exciting one when my ride into Cholpon Ata ended in terror as I was attacked (ok I exaggerate, “landed on”) by an eagle on a mashrutka and the closest three flustered ejes screamed at its owner.* September 8th through the 14th, Cholpon Ata (a village about 40 minutes west of Ananevo on the north shore of Issyk Kul) held the first ever World Nomad Games. These games brought together more than twelve countries to compete in traditional games and display cultural events. The whole month leading up to this week, Issyk Kul was full of excitement, tourists, horses (and show eagles) and the games were publicized more than any other event I have seen in Kyrgyzstan. They built new facilities (which appear to have been thrown together over the course of about three weeks, but were ready for the games on time) and even had a television advertisement.

Check out the advertisement here:

The goal of the World Nomad games is to celebrate the culture, history and traditions of nomad countries across Eurasia. These games and traditional events were held in three locations across the north shore of Issyk Kul. There were two showgrounds in Cholpon Ata, the Hippodrom, a large stadium complete with a horse track, seating for about 1200 people and plenty of room for vendors to sell popcorn, samsas, shwarma and other traditional treats, and the Rukh Ordo, a beautiful park in Cholpon Ata that usually is a bit pricey to get into but was open to the public during these events. The third showground was in Kochkor, a National Park in the mountains of the village just next to mine, Seimyanovka, the same place I visited Jailoo my first weekend in Ananevo. This pasture hosted yurts from every oblast, more than 200 in total, and also displayed traditional games, cultural performances, food and other events (I heard horseback archery was one but was disappointed I didn’t get a chance to witness it myself).

Men and women from more than fifteen countries came to participate in the games. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Russia (the Altai Republic), Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, USA, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and more. Some of these participants had been training their whole lives in these sports, some of whom were invited to represent their country by the U.S. embassy (presumably because diplomats didn’t want to make their own team), and some of whom found out about the opportunity on a couch surfing site a week beforehand (I’ll let you guess which countries each kind of participant hails from).

Many of these traditional games involve horses:

Oodarysh – Horseback Wrestling
Participants from different countries try to wrestle opponents off the their horses.  It was impressive how controlled the horses were, boxing one another out of the way, and how strong these men were, able to stay on their horses while being shoved and pulled at.
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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn Afgani wrestler, waving his country’s flag, rides in to meet his opponent

Tyin Emmei — Dangerous Horse Stunts
Players attempt to pick up a coin while riding a horse at full speed, race from Karakol to Kirchen and more
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race winners were awarded up to $20,000 for first place

Kok Boru – Dead Headless Goat Polo
Mounted players compete for points by throwing a beheaded goat (or sheep) carcass into a well-like goal at the end of each field. After one team scores, the defeated team must climb in and retrieve the carcass and drop it midfield while the other players run towards him at full speed and attempt to pick it up first.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATwo Kyrgyz teams (red and blue) played each other for the first place slot (clearly no one else could compete)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis blue shirted man was one of my favorite players.  He would throw himself off his horse with the carcass in order to ensure he scored a point (and I’m sure also just to show off)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAa victory lap for the Kyrgyz “blue” team

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthe Kyrgyz “red” team scores

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA militia guard watches as the Mongolian team rides off defeated
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Teams ride off the field together after the championship game

Kurosh – Waist Wrestling
Essentially what looked a lot like American wrestling but where players were allowed to grab one another’s belts

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Kazak wrestler watches his teammate from the sidelines after winning a match

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Kyrgyz wrestlers observe other countries’ matches while they wait

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two heavyweight wrestlers demonstrate techniques for the crowd

Kokuz Torgol – Mancala with Strategy
Literally means “Nine Sheep Droppings” in Kyrgyz. This game is played like mancala but with the strategy of chess (thinking many moves ahead).

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Four Peace Corps volunteers made up an American team and played against competitors from a variety of countries.

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Referees watched the games to see the players keep count and to ensure that the room stayed quiet.

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Women were only matched with other women and men only matched with other men.

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Ordo – Sheep Bone Marbles
The knuckle bones of a sheep are put into the middle of a large circle as men from two teams throw larger bones at them in attempts to hit them out of the circle. (played a lot in villages)

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Team Kazakstan (in teal) played two teams from Kyrgyzstan (in both red and blue) in a heated game

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Catch (and Kiss) the Girl
A game in which one or two men chase after a girl on horseback.  If they catch her they can (in theory) marry or kiss her.  If she gets away she gets to hit them with her horse whip three times.  While I’m sure there is a Kyrgyz name for this game, many of the locals I asked gave me different names and most simply called it “the game where you catch the girl…”

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There were also many traditional music and dance performances in Cholpon Ata at The Rukh Ordo and the Hippodrome.

Including a circus of sorts

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complete with a hair died zonkey (zebra doney)

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and child wrestling
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Among these cultural events, performers from many different countries displayed traditional music, dance, and costume.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA group of Turkish women are interviewed by local news networks about their dance

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A young Kyrgyz girl bows after her song and dance.  Her performance on the Kumyz (a traditional Kyrgyz instrument somewhat resembling a solid banjo) mimicked a deer running through the forest.
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A group of ejes, adorned in Kyrgyz dress, enjoy an ice cream in the shade

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Champion wrestlers sit with a coach and an Ak Sakal (literally translated to “white beard” in Kyrgyz language).  In villages older, well respected men, called Ak Sakal, usually form a council that makes decisions or has input on various town matters.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMen in traditional hats (called Kalpaks) watch wrestling matches on the last day of the games


I enjoyed getting to experience a bit of nomad culture and to see the pride people took in performing for and explaining these traditions to foreigners. I hope this is the beginning of a long tradition and can’t wait to see the Kyrgyz national teams sweep the horse games (and maybe the Americans climb the rankings in some Toguz Korgol action) again next year. Almaty (?) 2015 or bust!

*explanation of eagle incident from above:
A man who was bringing his hunting eagle to the events (presumable to make money off tourists posing for photo ops with the bird) decided that instead of shoving the eagle in the trunk of the mashrutka (which is the standard practice) he would just bring his eagle onto the crowded bus as a mother would with her lap child. However as the mashrutka grew more and more crowded, and the eagle more and more agitated, the young man moved seats for an older woman and ended up behind me at which point in time the eagle hopped off his owner’s lap and onto the headrest of my seat. When the mashrutka came to a screeching halt (as they normally do to let someone off or to pick up an extra fair waiving them down on the side of the road) the eagle flew forward and onto my head. Passengers around me then proceeded to hit it in an attempt to remove the bird, but this didn’t help and only made the eagle flap around more until its owner scooped it up in a bear hug and promptly disembarked the mashrutka to put the animal in its rightful seat with the rest of the luggage (the trunk). I can say that no eagles were harmed on this mashrutka ride, but my sense of security and the back of my sweater certainly took a beating.

Getting Cut Open in Kyrgyzstan – аппендицит

On Wednesday August 6th, a group of volunteers from Issyk Kul Oblast got together and excitedly boarded a train from Balakchy to Bishkek for Phase 3 of our Peace Corps service training. After having been at our respective permanent sites for one month we were all very excited to rejoin our other K-22s and share our experiences.

On Thursday August 7th, I earned myself a trip to the National Surgical Center in Bishkek to have my appendix removed.

Thursday morning all 54 volunteers met at the hub site in Krasnaya Rechka and happily greeted each other, exchanging hugs and stories. I was, of course, thrilled to see everyone but was bothered by some severe stomach pain and nausea that eventually I concluded couldn’t just be gas from the welcome home dinner of bread, sheep and oil I had been served the evening before. Something was wrong. I called the Peace Corps doctor on duty and he asked some questions and told me he would call me back. Upon receiving his return phone call he told me not to eat anything and that I would travel from Krasnaya Rechka to Bishkek with another Peace Corps staff member later that afternoon to visit the doctors office. My Russian language group is lucky enough to live with host families in Krasnaya Rechka near the hub site where our training meetings are held so our group, and the group of Kyrgyz speakers who also live at hub site, walked to my host family’s house for lunch. After sitting through lunch with no appetite I stayed at home both to get out of the heat and to see if I could find a position (stomach, back, left side, right side, curled up, spread eagle) that would relieved some of the pain and pressure from my stomach.

When the Peace Corps car came to pick me up we drove to Bishkek on one of Kyrgyzstan’s nicer paved roads so it wasn’t until we arrived at the road to the Peace Corps office, which is notoriously bad and extremely potholed, that I realised with every bump how much the pain had intensified. The Peace Corps doctor asked me a series of questions and listened closely as I recounted my symptoms and how the pain had moved and localised. He took my temperature (low fever), poked and prodded my belly a little (lower right abdominal pain) and checked my mouth (dry tongue despite having been drinking water all day). Finally he looked at me and calmly informed me that he thought I had appendicitis. Of course the logical reaction would have been to recount the symptoms with him that matched the illness, ask what the next steps were, prepare to leave for the hospital, but my reaction was to burst into tears. Not only was the thought of being cut open in a foreign country terrifying, but considering that I had no idea what questions to ask, where we would go, or how the Kyrgyz health system would deal with me, a freaked out foreigner, was even more distressing. The strong sense of independence and capability of dealing with new experiences on my own had quickly faded into panic and hysterical tears. The Peace Corps medical staff were more than wonderful in calming me down and acting as the comforting role as we walked into the old soviet emergency room and I was poked, prodded and asked about my pain by surgeons and the head of the hospital (in Russian of course).

Eventually it was agreed upon that my symptoms were, in fact, indicative of appendicitis and that I would need surgery to remove my appendix as soon as possible. Phone calls to our country director and to Washington DC were made, approvals were given, mothers were informed, and before I knew it I was walking into an operating room with nothing but a robe on. The room was cold and looked like something out of a soviet spy movie, the big operating light with fifteen bulbs, the brown pleather coated surgical table, the team of medical staff bustling about prepping trays of shiny metal tools. I was told to remove my robe and lay down on the table. So, naked and feeling more vulnerable than ever, I waited as nurses strapped down my ankles and wrists and began prodding my forearms in search of a vein large enough to jab an IV into. After what seemed like half an hour (but was probably only a few minutes) an older woman approached me and asked if I understood Kyrgyz. I shook my head. “Русский понимаешь?” (Do you understand Russian?) she asked. I nodded. She explained to me in the same slow, clear voice you would use to speak to a child, that she was the anaesthesiologist (thank god the word is a cognate) and she would be helping today. I must have looked terrified as my eyes darted from the many doctors and staff scampering around the room, to the surgical instruments, to the intubation tubes they were about to shove down my throat, to the nurses still prodding my left arm trying to find a vein. I asked her in broken panicked Russian “I slept – er – I mean – I will sleep? Yes? I will be sleep?” “Конюшне” (of course) she nodded sympathetically and told me not to look at my arm, “only look to the right,” she said, tilting my head right. As I felt the cold rush up my left arm my eyes fought to stay open but I was soon, as promised, asleep.

When I awoke I was completely naked and half covered by a sheet, but most alarmingly I was strapped to a gurney and still intubated. I gasped for breath as they unhooked me from the pump but choked on the tube, which they left in my throat. I shook my hands as best I could (which probably looked laughable, like a fish trying to flap around on dry land, as I was still under much of the affect of the anaesthesia) in an attempt to indicate that I was, in fact, awake and that I would, in fact, like to attempt to breath normally instead of through the inch and a half wide straw that was stuck in my throat. My attempts to move it around and get it out with my tongue only made it more difficult to breathe (and I’m sure my flustered appearance more laughable to the on looking patients and the busy nurses). When they finally removed the tube I gagged and felt the need to cough but immediately regretted giving into that need when I felt the pressure from one heave explode from my abdomen. I was sure I had ripped out all my stitches but was still too numb in all my limbs to sit up and check. So I gave in and allowed the orderly to position me whatever way he wanted, presumable the position that was most useful for him to keep an eye on the tube protruding from my belly.

I stayed in the post operation room with six other patients for the night, sleeping on an off as new patients were rolled in on squeaky gurneys and nurses periodically handed me a water bottle or answered my requests for the time by nodding to the blurry clock on the wall (I had not yet been given my personal belongings and was still without glasses thus my inquiries at fifteen minute intervals were not meant to be annoying but rather were due to the fact that I simply couldn’t see the clock they kept nodding to). When I awoke, I realized that the large barred squares on the wall I had been staring at all night were windows, and the light shining through them meant I had made it through the night and to the next day, which I had been promised would mean I would get to move to a recovery room. When the surgeon arrived, accompanied by a large group of nurses, orderlies and other important looking men and women in various colors of scrubs, he proudly told them that I was the American (among other quick comments I didn’t understand) and asked me in slow stammered Russian “How – are – you – feeling?”

“Tired,” I responded and tried to inquire about when I would move but he and his gaggle of followers had already moved on to the next patient, looking over a new folder.

Soon after, a new patient was rolled into the room, her gurney parked beside mine. She was asleep and still had the intubation tube down her throat. She looked peaceful and as the intubation machine pumped on and off I imagined it was what I had looked like before awakening and realising just how sore I was.

The Peace Corps doctors arrived within an hour and asked how I was doing. Having nothing to compare it to I described as best I could what I felt like, tired, sore, ready to put on pants, and probably the bag of typical feelings post surgery. They went to go fill out some paperwork and talk to the doctors and before long I was being transferred into a new gurney (upside down since I’m pretty sure my feet were not supposed to be inclined slightly above my head) and rolled backwards down a maze of hallways. We finally arrived to a warmly lit hallway and stopped just outside a door that clearly wouldn’t fit the gurney’s wide girth. The nurses yammered back and fourth to one another for a few minutes before I told them I could just get up and walk to the new bed in my room. They helped me swing my legs over the side of the rolling platform I had been laying on and stepped gingerly with my right foot onto the floor. Immediately, I realised that the single position I had been in all night had not allowed me to feel the extent of my soreness. Pain shot up the right side of my body and I stumbled a little but the nurses ushered me into my new room and plopped me down on the bed.

Peace Corps medical staff visited me to return my belongings and help me dress myself (bending to put on even the stretchy pants we had hurriedly purchased the day of my surgery before heading to the hospital was pretty impossible without help the day after my surgery). They helped get me situated and asked if there was anything else I needed. In my drowsy state I couldn’t think of anything but gave them the number of a friend in my Russian group and my room keys so that they could at the very least collect some clean underwear for me. Then, still slightly under the affects of the anaesthesia, I drifted off to sleep.

When I awoke it was early evening and, my legs being numb from doing nothing but laying down for almost 48 hours straight, I decided to attempt to sit up and inspect my surroundings. I was in a private Палате (room) with a shared toilet and sink. Thank god there were flush toilets I could sit on, I thought, squatting with my swollen, sewn up belly would have been a challenge I wasn’t quite up to. I tried to sleep that evening but could not keep my eyes closed for more than an hour or so without becoming restless or being awoken by someone peeking into my room, the heat or simply being uncomfortable. I assessed my situation.

On the plus side: I had my own room and as much Russian television as I could watch (news, dubbed American films and Russian knockoffs of CSI and Dharma and Greg)

On the down side: I had a tube of my own fluid leaking out of me and over the course of 36 hours I accumulated 106 mosquito bites, more back sweat than I ever thought possible and an a slightly hysterical tendency to cry whenever someone asked me a question.

Lack of sleep and the emotional exhaustion caused by not knowing what was going on, how long I was going to be stuck in the hospital or being able to communicate with the nurses (who seemed to only pop their heads into my room to see what I was doing, the American on display) had not been good to me. Over the next few days I slowly got up and began to walk around, first with the assistance of Peace Corps staff who visited and brought company and lunch, and then eventually on my own. But occupying myself in a single room with only one hallway to roam was difficult and I found myself becoming more and more uncomfortable every day and less able to rest at all. Finally on my fourth day in the hospital, I broke down. I was hotter than I had ever been and the same sweaty clothes I had been wearing for three days were beginning to stink more than my unwashed hair (it had been about a week since I had gotten to banya at permanent site and I came to the hospital only two days after arriving in Chui so I was going on almost 9 days of unwashed filth). In an attempt to cool down my room I had foolishly left the windows open and allowed mosquitos into my room (I will not hypothesise to the number of mosquitos but if there were any less than 50, they were truly the hungriest, un-killable warriors of their swarm). I was itchy, hot, stinky, nervous, exhausted and still uncomfortable with a bag of leaky surgery fluid (I have no idea what it actually was since when I asked in broken Russian I only received blank stares as a response) still hanging out of me. So when the nurses came in around lunchtime to find me scratching my mosquito bites with a towel and sobbing, they were quite alarmed. 

In a New York Times article that detailed various RPCVs experiences during their service, a retuned volunteer from Uganda wrote “You have never witnessed human discomfort until you see a confused Ugandan man try to comfort a hysterical, sobbing white woman having an emotional meltdown.” This is how I felt sitting in my hospital room, rubbing my legs with a towel and repeating “Комаре, Комаре” (mosquito) the only word I knew in an attempt to explain some of my frustration as six Kyrgyz nurses of varying ages (both ejes, older women, and younger but equally confused looking nurses) jumped around the room clapping their hands trying to kill mosquitos and patting my head saying “Не плачь, Пожалуйста не плачь” (don’t cry, please don’t cry). I had created quite the scene, and when the Peace Corps medical staff came to visit that day all of the things I had prepared to ask them went down the drain as I began uncontrollably crying again.

I was so incredibly thankful that instead of alarming staff members I would undoubtedly be seeing for the next two years as I had freaked out the nurses, the Peace Corps medical assistant knew exactly how to handle a vulnerable and broken down volunteer. She helped me ask how much longer I would need to stay in the hospital, gave me a clear explanation as to what exactly they were giving me shots of four times a day and how long the regimen of these antibiotics would be, and told the nurses she would be taking me back to the Peace Corps office to shower (promising of course to take good care of me and make sure we taped a packet over my wound as to not get it wet). Most importantly, upon our return to the hospital she translated for me a quick apology to the nurses and a somewhat coherent explanation of why I had been upset before (as it was no fault of theirs, I wanted to make sure they knew).

Ex soviet Kyrgyzstan offers excellent standards in medical procedures. Surgical staff is well trained, nurses are caring and sympathetic, especially to the occasional freaked out foreigner upset at the amount of mosquitos in her room. I felt that, given the circumstances, my care was excellent. However the experience did expose to me some of the dissimilarities between medicine in Kyrgyzstan and in the United States. 

The biggest (and to maybe not to my surprise, the hardest to deal with) difference in medical care in Kyrgyzstan is that it is solely focused on the medical procedure. Unlike in America, where hospitals also operate efficiently, with staff who are well trained and experts in their fields, there is a patient centered realm of care. Doctors communicate with patients on details about the procedures, the plan of treatment for before and afterward any surgical procedure, the reasons behind these plans, clearly explaining what will be done to the patient’s body or what has broken down, what needs to be fixed and how doctors will go about treating the problem. In Kyrgyzstan the orientation of the patient is slightly altered. Doctors are experts in medicine and the human body and the attitude that patients should take the doctors advice to get better, no further explanation needed is the standard. Truthfully it’s logical. However, waiting 40 minutes for the lab tech to show up with twelve other moaning patients squatting on the hospital hallway floor waiting to get blood drawn seemed alarmingly strange to me and defied all of my previous medical experiences where patient comfort came first and foremost. This country’s type of care is efficient in its own way and works to keep people in this country healthy as well, but it also reflects on the fact that many people in this country do not seek medical assistance for preventative care, but rather only after a health problem has become so severe that there is nowhere else to go. As a terrified American who hadn’t been to the hospital for anything more than a bad ear infection in the past 19 years, this variation in the expectation of my patient role (combined with my slightly anal need for plans and order, thanks Mom) lead to a small emotional breakdown in my hot hospital room which not only terrified my nurses but myself as well. Thinking logically or coming up with questions to ask in a calm manner was no longer an option for my physically and emotionally taxed body. I had not slept due to a combination of nerves, heat, mosquitos and confusion about what the nurses were asking in their rapid fire questions to me every hour, and this stifled my healing process immensely. 

Overall, missing almost two weeks of language and technical training (the purpose of my return trip to Chui Oblast) did leave me in a bit of a lurch as far as catching up goes. Needles to say I would have much rather sat through several hours every day of being hot in Russian class than seven days of being in a hospital bed (and this is saying a lot if you know my attitude towards Russian grammar) but this experience did provide me with a unique inside look into the medical systems of Kyrgyzstan, a pretty valuable experience for a health volunteer.

 

The National Surgical Center in Bishkek where my surgery took place.

In Kyrgyz (top) and in Russian (below)

 Hospital Entrance

 

When I began walking around on my own I ventured outside in the evenings when it was less hot. These hallways connect the surgical wing (which houses the emergency room and most of the operating rooms) to patient rooms and other clinics and offices. I liked the Kyrgyz Shyrdak designs painted on the windows.

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The list for my hallways of patients and their rooms. These are handwritten because they change every day, however this means that my name was spelled differently every day too. The following variations were my favorite:

Петен (Peten)
Патенен (Patenen)
Пететон (Peteton)
Паттон (Patton, the correct spelling and pronunciation)

 

Patient List 

  

My hallway and room.

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Palate

 

The inside of my room. The private Палаты (rooms) were sandwiched between shared rooms with up to 11 patients at one time.

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This was clearly post freak out when, much to the horror of the nurses, Peace Corps brought me a fan. It is a common Kyrgyz belief that if a cool breeze blows on you, you will probably get sick, so the fan was not received well at first in a healing patient’s room.

Welcome to Ананево!

After swearing in on June 19th, volunteers departed to their new homes and permanent work sites.  I have been busy settling in to my new site and exploring the beautiful surrounding areas.  Let me tell you a little bit about my new home:

 

Ananevo is a large city of 9,000 located on the northern shore of Lake Issuk Kul in the Issyk Kul Rayon (district) of the Issyk Kul Oblast (state).  If you can’t tell, people are pretty big on the lake here.  It brings in a lot of tourist revenue for nearby towns like Bosteri and Cholopon Ata as well as providing fertile lands for farming and grazing sheep, cattle and horses (all of which are eaten here).  Issyk Kul is the second largest (182 kilometres, 113 miles by 60 kilometres, 37 miles; 688 metres or 428 miles around) and highest alpine lake in the world.  At an altitude of 1,607 metres (5,272 ft) it reaches 668 metres (2,192 ft) at its deepest points.  The lake is cold, but refreshing to swim in on a hot day.  Because the lake is salty, no animals drink from it so the water is also relatively clean compared to surrounding freshwater ponds and smaller lakes.  I have yet to see any wildlife living in the lake besides some sea grass looking plants, however people here swear by the fish that are “caught in Issyk Kul”.  These are the smoked and salted fish that are sold on the side of every road and by Baikes wandering the tourist beaches in every town in the Oblast.  They taste a little like smoked salmon (if you close your eyes and think really hard about lox) but overly salty, a little dry and usually a little more potently fishy.  Not my favorite treat here, but they are a favorite with the locals when people can afford to splurge (they are a little pricy for the every day dinner table).

 

Ananevo was named after “Ananev” a soldier in the war from 1941-1944. There is a large statue of his bust outside the entrance to the park where people frequently leave flowers and gifts.

 

Ananev Bust 

 

There is also a large mural on the wall behind him to commemorate those who fought in the war.

 

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Just beyond the gate of the park there is a memorial wall with the names of those from Ananevo who fought. 

 

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My main work site is the Village Health Committee in Ananevo, but since they do not meet very frequently (it is run by volunteers, usually local nurses and other interested parties, I’ll go into more detail about the health system in a later post) I have been working at a “Rehabilitation Center” for disabled children near the town’s center.  The building is pretty new (only 2 years old) and is a very nice space fro children.  It is connected to the local library (which is open sometimes, not every day) so I have gotten to know the Librarian since she has to show up to unlock the outside door for me.  She promises she is getting a key for me since many days I show up earlier than she does.  Currently the Center is only being used as my “office” and as a space for me to hold my English Club, for which I am very grateful seeing as many volunteers say it is sometimes difficult to find space to hold meetings.  However we have yet to have any rehabilitation days or activities for children with disabilities at the center.  With my limited Russian language skills I have gathered this is because the children this facility serves live not only in Ananevo but also in surrounding villages and only come to the Center for events, training days, or special parties when we invite them.  Summer is the busiest time of year in Kyrgyzstan because many families work in agriculture and rely on the summer’s income for most of the year so not only are many adults very busy, but children are also frequently expected to help at home.  I speculate, but this could also be a reason the Center is not as active at the moment.

 

Despite the fact that I came here not wanting anything to do with teaching English, my English club is something I do that makes me feel pretty useful here.  Every volunteer takes part in some sort of English teaching and I am glad I have found a great group of students who are interested, engaged and for the most part show up within twenty minutes or so of the club’s start time (this is typical Kyrgyz time, this are just a little slower here).  Every Wednesday and Friday anywhere from 6 (if it’s raining and no one wants to go outside) to 26 (if it’s not quite nice enough outside for them to want to play instead, but still not raining thus barring them in their homes) school aged children (ages from 11 to 16) come to the Center and we have an hour of fun.  Wednesdays are our “health days” which essentially means I make the kids learn basic vocabulary about body parts, medical professions, nutrition and healthy lifestyles and other simple health related topics that wont scare all them away yet.  They love to play games and despite their request for more “cool American music,” their favorite song is “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”  They are a little camera shy so I haven’t quite gotten the full song on film yet, but when I do and when I have the internet speed to upload a video I’ll post it.

 

Fridays are “fun days” where I let them pick the topics.  So far they have mostly requested to learn about American culture.  Their interest in American holidays was perfect timing since my very first Friday fun day was the 4th of July.  Here are some of the gifts they made me for Independence Day:

 

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They also remind me every day that they want to listen to more American music, which they think consists solely of young female ex-Disney stars gone pop rock and Justin Beiber (don’t worry I’ve begun educating them on quality American music and I immediately corrected them that America can’t and doesn’t want to take credit for Justin Beiber, he is all Canada’s responsibility/fault).  Overall I am excited that I can work health into the English club and still have interested students, but we will see if they continue to be interested after the magic of me being a shiny new American volunteer wears off. 

 

My family in Ananevo has changed a little since I first arrived.  In late June, I arrived to a home with a mother, Zanipa (Занипа) who is 52, a host brother Daniel (Даниел) who is 12 and a host sister Ainaizik, (Аинаизик) who is 8, however last week I discovered that Ainaizik and Daniel are actually my cousins 9the children of my mother’s brother) and live in Osh.  Despite the fact that they both helped me draw a family tree the very first week I arrived at site (and watched as I drew their names as Zanipa’s children without correcting me) I found out that they do not live with us only when their father came last Monday, picked them up and took them back to Osh Oblast (literally the furthest south we are allowed to travel without being in dangerous territory in Kyrgyzstan).   The good thing is, I now have someone to visit in Osh and an excuse to get down there.  On the other hand, despite the fact that I don’t have any siblings I have to teach to knock or to not eat all my food, now my mother and I have a very quiet bachelorette pad and it is sometimes a little lonely since we both work a lot.  Just another reflection on how important it is to become fluent quickly, so you know what the heck is going on and who the heck you’re living with.  My mother is a wonder woman and works two jobs, one at the Ail Okmotu (local village level government) in Ananevo and the other is in Cholpon Ata with the Rayon office finding jobs for the unemployed.  She is patient with me, teaches me something new every day and is a very sympathetic listener to my terrible Russian.  When I asked her why she wanted to host a volunteer, her response was “I want an American friend.” My heart melted. What more could I ask for?

 

My house is on the main north-south road, which runs 3 km down to the lake and 7 km up to the base of the mountains.  Needless to say I have incredible views.  We have three buildings that make up our home.  One is the kitchen and eating area, connected to my mother’s area by an indoor/outdoor hallway and dishwashing space (it has walls and is enclosed but you wear your shoes in it which you would never do inside so I’m not quite sure how to classify the space).  My mother’s area has two rooms, her bedroom and guest room with a television (yes, we have Russian cable) where the kids mostly used to hang out during the day.  My room is in another building that faces the kitchen area but consists of a small storage room, a huge guesting room and my bedroom.  All three buildings have pechkas (coal, and sometimes dung, fired ovens used to heat homes here in Kyrgyzstan) but since I am the only one living in my building and the space is very large I will have to figure out how to efficiently heat my room in the winter.  I will also have to learn the ways of the pechka (what to burn, when to burn it, how to not burn the house down or smoke myself out of my room), which I have been told, will officially make me very Kyrgyz and thus a good Kalin (a Kyrgyz daughter-in-law/bride).

 

All in all I am very happy with my site and despite the language frustrations, constant miscommunications, and feeling of uselessness since it seems like I’ll never be able to give a health seminar or present relevant information in Russian language, I see a little improvement every day and the little things are what’s most exciting.

 

The center of town where all the Mashrutkas, Taxis and people hang out, is only 50 yards from my house.  We also have a small bazaar just down to road (behind the larger yellow building)

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My walk home from work provides a rather fantastic view of the mountains

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Swearing In and the Road Home

On June 19th I swore in as an official Peace Corps volunteer.  Our K-22 group of 55 volunteers along with families, counterparts and Peace Corps staff filled the Bishkek Opera-Ballet and excitement filled the air as we all took our seats, followed by relief as we all took the Peace Corps oath. 

Because photos can narrate better than I can, here they are: 

 

Amanda, Stephen and I before swearing in.

 

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Stephanie and I will both live and work on the North shore of lake Issyk Kul

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Usen, our Russian teacher and “Master of Ceremony” (obviously an occastion that merits the popular Kyrgyz metallic pants)

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The Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan Country Director, Tammie, made an inspiring welcome speech which was translated for our families as well.

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We were sworn in by the American Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Mrs. Pamela Spratlen.  You can read more about Ambassador Spratlen on the U.S. embassy site here: http://bishkek.usembassy.gov/ambassador2.html

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Jonothan read a section of Manas, the longest and most Kyrgyz epicImage

 

and Sean sang a Kyrgyz son, which was quite a hit

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My PST host mother and I before I left for Issyk Kul.  She made me promise that I would visit every time I was in Chui, to which I reminded her she still had to host me in August and she couldn’t possibly get rid of me before she taught me how to make yogurt.

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Our Russian language group with Master of Ceremony and teacher Usen.  Out of the Six of us, two will be going to Issyk Kul and the other four to Chiu. (from left to right: Stephen, Forest, Lila, me, Usen, Ashley and Amanda)Image

 

 

After the ceremony, we waited outside the opera house for the mashrutka some of the volunteers heading to Issyk Kul were sharing.  Our mashrutka driver finally showed up (2 hours later) and we crammed all 6 volunteers, our excessive amount of stuff and 6 counterparts into one mashrutka.

 

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My counterpart, Guljamal, fell asleep on the way there. Probably exhausted after having to be such a sympathetic listener to my explanation as to why American’s had so much stuff in my unintelligible Russian language 

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We each arrived to our respective sites safe and sound after a long, crowded and bumpy ride along Issyk Kul’s northern shore to the open and loving homes of our new host families.  I am so happy to be settled in my new home and am looking forward to exploring this town, this country and it’s culture.

In a region of the world where United States presence is fading, I am excited and proud to work and serve as a Health Education Peace Corps volunteer.  I am sure I will discover many roles I can fill in my village, in my work, in my family and in this country, but I am most excited to learn through these roles about the people of Kyrgyzstan.  Cheers to seeing what the next two years holds!